October 6, 2020

Duterte's precarious hold on power and the future of the Liberal Party

Being a Philippine President is like being the driver of the car called "the Philippine Government." Winning in 2016 is Duterte driver's license, but a license is not enough. 

Duterte also needs (1) fuel for the engines, and (2) lubricants to keep the car's parts from breaking down. He fuels the car with tax revenues then he lubricates its parts using political power so that other politicians – the car parts – follow his lead.

To be an effective president, Duterte needs a constant supply of funds (mostly via tax money) and political power (political influence). Unfortunately, the President is currently having difficulty securing both.

First, COVID-induced economic contractions mean lower tax collections. 

But lower revenues have a pretty straightforward solution: austerity measures coupled with loans until the economy gets back on its feet. Diminished influence, however, is much more complicated. 

Second, some of the President's supposedly staunchest allies are undermining his political influence.

Recent events indicate an attempt to decimate much of Duterte's political power (the "government lubricant") that will render him unable to make the government car run the way he wants.

For this nation's sake, I do not want that. I need to protect this President until his term ends in June 2022. 

1: Depowering a President 

Let's first talk about the basics. 

There are three basic methods to depower a president.

First is by the expiration of term of office. This one is obvious, so it needs no further discussion.

Second is by impeachment. This one is also obvious, so it needs no lengthy discussion. Note that Estrada, while impeached in the House of Representatives, wasn't convicted in the Senate. While the Senate impeachment trial did, instead, was to catalyze a coup d'etat, which we shall expound in the next method. 

EDSA Dos ended with Estrada leaving Malacanang.

Third is by coup d'etat, such as the removal of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 through the romanticized coup d'etat that EDSA Uno, more popularly known as the People Power Revolution. Another example is President Joseph Estrada, who was removed in 2001 through EDSA Dos and while an impeachment trial was still ongoing. 

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo could have suffered the same fate in 2001 during EDSA Tres, but that attempt failed. Unlike the first two EDSA uprisings, critical power blocs like the military and the Roman Catholic Church supported the sitting government. 

EDSA Tres didn't work because it had no military support.

2: Depowering Rodrigo Duterte

Should President Duterte be concerned about these three methods?

No big deal here. Term expiration is not an issue because that's what the 1987 Constitution wants. 

Impeachment is highly unlikely. 

Duterte has at least nine senators who will mostly take his side, namely: (1) Pacquiao, (2) Dela Rosa, (3) Go, (4) Pimentel, (5) Tolentino, (6) Sotto, (7) Marcos, (8) Revilla, and (9) Villar. Conviction, which requires at least 16 senatorial votes out of the possible 24, is improbable.

A coup d'etat is also unlikely. 

Like President Arroyo, Duterte has coup-proofed his reign through (1) his aggressive courtship of the military [1], and (2) drastic diminution of the already diminished political influence of the Roman Catholic Church. With a politically defanged church and with significant military support, an anti-Duterte EDSA revolution won't happen. 

Remember when PRRD visit one military camp after another during the start of his term? That wasn't for nothing.

3: The Lame Duck

All three methods require Duterte to exit Malacañang, and we see that none of them pose a real threat against him. But leaving Malacañang need not always be an ingredient.

President Duterte can still lose power without the need for removal, and that's by turning him into "lame duck".

A lame duck is an official with political power so diminished that he's reduced to a ceremonial head, with other persons (or groups of persons) exercising actual power.

For example, days before US President Barack Obama stepped down in 2017, the Trump predecessor jested: 
"You can tell that I'm a lame duck because nobody's following instructions [2]".
US President Barack Obama

Trump's 2017 win turned Obama into a lame duck in the same way Duterte's 2016 win turned President Aquino into the same. 

So why did I bring this issue up? 

4: The Anatomy of Political Influence

Is President Duterte at risk of losing significant power, significant enough to prevent him from controlling the Philippine Government Machinery?

The answer, right now, is yes.

Political influence comes from two primary sources: 
  1. mass popularity, and,
  2. support from political power blocs. 
But here’s some bad news: history shows that mass popularity is indispensable only during the election season, but support from political power blocs is necessary for the rest of the term. 

For example, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won the 1998 vice-presidency by a landslide [3] but her popularity charted new depths each year. Despite becoming more unpopular than her deposed predecessor Erap Estrada [4], she still managed to hold on to power until 2010 because she enjoyed the support of most major political power blocs. 

Arroyo deftly maintained support from the military.

Now, does Duterte enjoy the same?

The first ingredient is present: Duterte got a sky-high 91 percent approval rating in the September 2020 Pulse Asia Survey [5]

The second ingredient, meanwhile, is derived from the Duterte Coalition, also known as "Kilusang Pagbabago (Coalition for Change)", which primarily consists of the following political groups:
  1. Duterte's own PDP-Laban, which includes speaker hopeful Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco belongs,
  2. Senator Cynthia Villar's Nacionalista Party (NP), which includes Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano,
  3. Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's Lakas-CMD, which includes Majority Leader Martin Romualdez,
  4. Lakas-CMD breakaway group National Unity Party (NUP), which includes presidential son Paolo Duterte, and,
  5. Danding Cojuangco's Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC), which includes Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto
  6. The Party-list Bloc, led by 1Pacman Rep. Mikee Romero.
Note that Big Business (read: the billionaires) is also a political power bloc, but most billionaires are aligned with one or more of the six political groups listed above.

Aside from running the Executive Branch, Duterte needs to keep the alliance supportive of his decisions, which was the case, at least until right after the 2019 midterm elections. 

5: Three Power Tussles over the Next Best Things

Every political party wants to get top positions in government. Since there can only be one Philippine President, they aim for the next best things: 
  • the Senate Presidency and, 
  • the House Speakership. 
Note that the Vice-presidency is also a top position but let's be honest here: the VP is just a ceremonial official for as long as the President is still alive and kicking. 

Members of Kilusang Pagbabago vie for these posts, and very public conflicts ensue.

Kilusang Pagbabago’s first internal power tussle happened in 2016 when then-Senator Alan Peter Cayetano (NP) fought Senator Koko Pimentel (PDP Laban) for the Senate Presidency. 

Pimentel and Cayetano.

Pimentel prevailed [6]. But as a compromise, Duterte later made Cayetano Foreign Secretary [7]. ThinkingPinoy explained this 2016 drama in detail in the "Duterte, Cayetano, Pimentel: Inside Info on the Senate Presidency" Part One [8] and Part Two [9].

The second major power tussle was in 2018 when Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (LAKAS) snatched the speakership from Davao del Norte Rep. Bebot Alvarez (PDP Laban) [10]

Recall this moment?

But despite these inter-party conflicts, all members of this Duterte Coalition sought President’s blessing before they took any step.

Yes, the Executive shouldn't meddle with the Legislative, but Duterte isn't just a Chief Executive. Separate and distinct from this presidency is his chairmanship of the PDP Laban, the leading party within the Duterte Coalition. These bickering camps consulted Duterte as its coalition head and not as the Philippine President.

Duterte's ability to rein in these feuding parties is evidence of the second ingredient, the support from the political power blocs.

With two ingredients readily available (mass popularity and support from political power blocs), Duterte more easily advanced his 10-point socioeconomic agenda. For example, he used these ingredients to quickly secure congressional funding and approval for many projects listed in the ambitious Build Build Build infrastructure program [11].

The third power tussle wasn't as bloody, as it was when Senate President Koko Pimentel (PDP Laban) stepped down for Senator Tito Sotto (NPC), telling the latter that the leadership transition shall be implemented "with the minimum disruption."[12]

We all hoped that the fourth power tussle, the one for the 2019 speakership, would follow the same tack as the third, but it didn’t. And this is when the second ingredient – support from political power blocs – started to become a problem for Duterte. 

6: Cayetano announced Speakership Bid

Cayetano resigned from DFA in October 2018 [13] and told media that he "will seek the leadership position in the House [14]. " He then mounted a successful bid for the congressional seat in Cayetano bulwark Taguig's 1st District [15]. Further boosting his speakership chances is the election of his wife Lani Cayetano as representative of Taguig's 2nd District [16], albeit not without controversy [17].

Yes, Cayetano announced his speakership ambitions in advance, but other parties in the Duterte Coalition didn't join the chorus.

Four candidates for the speakership emerged after the May 2019 Elections [18]:
1. Taguig 1st Dist. Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano (NP)

2. Marinduque Lone Dist. Rep. Lord Allan Velasco (PDP Laban)

3. Leyte 1st Dist. Rep. Martin Romualdez (LAKAS)

4. Former speaker and Davao del Norte 1st Dist. Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez (PDP Laban)
As you may recall, Alvarez lost his speakership in 2018 via forcible ouster, so there were serious doubts as to whether he can regain the position, especially since many of the midterm representatives reelectionists, meaning pretty much the same ones who voted him out. 

Velasco, Cayetano, and Romualdez

The list of candidates was eventually reduced to Romualdez, Cayetano, and Velasco... and here's where things started to get messy. 

7: Congressional Mathematics

Two primary factors determine the speakership vote: 
(1) the general directive of each representative's political party, and,
(2) to a lesser extent, the preference of each representative. 
Note that the first is more important because overemphasis on the second means each congress member will vote for himself as the speaker, and that’ll lead to nowhere. The House has hundreds of members, so solons prefer to vote along party lines to consolidate political power in the chamber.

Hence, the dominant party or dominant coalition usually gets the speakership.

What "dominant party or dominant coalition"? 

PDP Laban is the dominant party with over 80 House members [19] so its likely to decide who becomes the next speaker which, at the time, appears to be Velasco. But 80-ish is not yet a majority in a House of over 300 members, so other parties with fewer members can band together to form a coalition that can outnumber PDP Laban.

That's what rival Romualdez did, because LAKAS has only a handful of House members [20].

The third hopeful, Nacionalista's Cayetano, has about 42 party-mates in the House. However, Nacionalista has a history of disunity, best evidenced by its having fielded three vice-presidential bets in 2016 (Cayetano, Antonio Trillanes, and Bongbong Marcos [21]), making the party look more like a hedge fund than a political force. 

These three 2016 VP Candidates (Trillanes, Cayetano, and Marcos) are from Nacionalista.

Nacionalista's tendency for intra-party factionalism strongly suggested that Cayetano, just like Romualdez, needed support from a multi-party coalition. Cayetano eventually got support from PDP Laban's 4-member Zamora Faction [22] and the 40-odd NUP [23]. Cayetano has supporters, but nowhere near the number enjoyed (or claimed) by either Velasco or Romualdez.

Mid-2019 newsfeeds were filled with various solons claiming majority support for either Romualdez [24] or Velasco [25], leading many to believe that the real battle is just between them.

By late June, it appeared that Romualdez and Velasco are in the lead, with Cayetano trailing at a distant third. 

8: Cayetano threatens the Duterte Coalition

It would've just been a typical numbers game if the battle was only between Romualdez and Velasco. But Cayetano, despite having the least number of overt supporters, appeared to have been extra creative. 

In late May 2019, Davao City Mayor Inday Sara Duterte said Cayetano came to her "with a veiled threat, that if she endorses Rep. Velasco for Speaker, he would break up the Duterte Coalition and this, he said, will affect the Presidential Elections of 2022 [26]." 

Inday Sara and Alan.

Succinctly put, Cayetano threatened to destroy Duterte's political influence (the second ingredient) if Inday Sara endorses someone else.

Reinforcing that theory is Buhay Party-list Representative Lito Atienza statement in a July 2019 interview:

"That's what Congressman Cayetano has been bandying around, that he is supported by the cabinet and that in fact, the cabinet would react negatively against the president if Cayetano doesn't get his term-sharing idea [27]." 

Atienza accused Cayetano of threatening Congress that the President Duterte's own cabinet will defy the Duterte if Cayetano doesn't get what he wants.

Atienza essentially said Cayetano threatened to take away the second ingredient – support from political power blocs – from the President, to weaken a cornerstone of the Duterte Presidency.

Cayetano's decision to paint himself as one of Duterte's staunchest supporters seems to have paid off, as the exodus of a staunch ally could be debilitating to Duterte, an exodus that he threatened to undertake if he doesn't become speaker. 

9: Cayetano through the years

Cayetano's threats to destroy the Duterte-led political alliance apparently weren't taken lightly, given the Cayetano’s extensive history of destroying political alliances.

Cayetano entered national politics through his 2004 Taguig congressional in Taguig that was funded by that First Gentleman Juan Miguel "Mike" Arroyo. The relationship turned sour just two years later, after Alan accused Mike of stashing millions of dollars in a German bank account [28]. That is, Alan ironically accused his financier of having stolen money that, two years prior, Alan could've benefitted from.

Cayetano relentlessly attacked the Arroyos for the next several years. Cayetano capitalized on his very public opposition to the unpopular Arroyos to win a senate seat in 2007 under the Nacionalista Party. He stayed in the party, supporting his sister and fellow Nacionalista Pia Cayetano's 2010 senatorial run and, by extension, the unsuccessful presidential aspirations of Nacionalista head Manny Villar.

Cayetano then joined the Liberal Party-led (LP) Team PNoy for his 2013 reelection bid. However, he bolted the alliance just two years later after LP presidentiable Mar Roxas ignored his vice-presidential [29] ambitions [30] and chose Leni Robredo for VP. 

Cayetano can't run for VP alone, so he had to find a running mate. Cayetano successfully wooed Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte, then attacked his former LP allies [31] during the 2016 campaign period. I guess this didn’t surprise erstwhile ally Arroyo [32].

Judging from these, Cayetano is either (1) the bastion of integrity and morality, or (2) a political butterfly on steroids. I guess President Duterte believes it's better to be safe than sorry, so he entertained Cayetano's 2019 speakership dreams despite the distant lead of rivals Romualdez and Velasco. 

10: Why is this relevant to Duterte?

PDP Laban by itself does not constitute a House majority, but Kilusang Pagbabago does. However, that coalition has three speaker hopefuls: Romualdez, Cayetano, and Velasco. The coalition leader breaks the tie in times like these, and that coalition leader happens to be PDP Laban chairperson Rodrigo Duterte.

In the end, coalition head Duterte allowed the term-sharing deal, where Cayetano is the speaker for 15 months, Velasco for the remaining 21, and Romualdez sits as Majority Leader for the entire three years. This means a speakership change in October 2020.

As a side note, Romualdez' decision to step back is a political masterstroke because he can comfortably get and keep the relatively uncontested but potent majority leader position, while tensions simmer (and boil over) between Speaker Cayetano and his giddy and anxious successor Velasco.

True enough, Romualdez looks so chill right now as Cayetano and Velasco metaphorically stab each other in the weeks leading to the theoretical speakership transition. 

This guy is a political genius.

But instead of keeping true to his word, Cayetano refused to honor the gentleman's agreement. I would've ignored this political brawl, if not for the fact that Cayetano getting his way could result in President Duterte becoming a lame-duck president.

I do not want that. I want to protect this President's hold on power until his successor replaces him in June 2022. 

But how will the President lose significant power if Cayetano remains speaker? 

11: Duterte outside the Kulambo?

Duterte himself brokered the term-sharing agreement, which he reaffirmed in late September 2020 when he intervened in the Cayetano-Velasco catfight. Multiple news reports [33, 34, 35] indicated that President broke the impasse by declaring that Cayetano should step down on 14 October 2020. 

Every Kilusang Pagbabago Coalition member expects the decision of its leader Duterte to be followed, but it appears not to be the case. A day after the meeting, Cayetano delivered a melodramatic congressional speech and offered to resign from his post, an offer that 184 solons reportedly rejected [36]

After the award-winning stunt, Velasco’s camp threatened to declare the speakership vacant [37] should Cayetano refuse to step down on the set date, thereby forcing a vote for the speakership.

If Cayetano gets his way again, what we shall witness is a brazen defiance of Duterte's leadership over Kilusang Pagbabago. Such defiance will show that Duterte has lost much support from political power blocs, support that he used to enjoy unequivocally.

Don't get me wrong: the Duterte Coalition will mostly be intact, except that it might as well change its name to the Cayetano Coalition, being that Duterte will be little more than a ceremonial head, with the Cayetano Faction calling the shots.

That is an issue. 

I supported Duterte in 2016 so he can control the government, and I do not want a political butterfly on steroids to wrest that control from him. And that's what will happen if and when Cayetano manages to remain speaker past October 14. 

Remember this?

Yes, Duterte will remain President. He will still have mass popularity. But no, he will not have full control over government anymore, because most political power blocs would instead follow Cayetano. If Cayetano fails to keep the speakership, it doesn't necessarily mean that Duterte is still in full control. But if Cayetano manages to keep it, then that loss will be certain.

I supported Duterte so he can lead this country for six full years, but if he becomes a lame duck, then that six will be reduced to four.

I do not want that. 

12: The Future of the Liberal Party after Rody

But the issue can even go beyond 2022.

As a nation, I think we have grown sick and tired of the Yellows, as evidenced by Otso Diretso's resounding defeat in the 2019 midterms. I myself do not want to witness another Quirino Hostage Crisis, another MRT Scandal [38], another Mamasapano Massacre [39], another trumped-up Corona impeachment case [40], another Kidapawan Carnage [41], another tsunami of drug syndicates [42], another botched Yolanda rehab.

Even the Liberal Party is painfully aware that its chances in 2022 are slim.

But the survival instinct is inherent in any human organization. In the absence of a winnable presidentiable, the Liberal Party will do the next best thing: support a friendly and winnable non-ally, hoping that it will catalyze the dying party's political resurrection. 

As of this article's writing, potentially winnable candidates for 2022 are:
(1) Manila mayor Isko Moreno,

(2) Davao City Mayor Inday Sara Duterte,

(3) Former senator Bongbong Marcos,

(4) Senator Bong Go, and,

(5) Senator Manny Pacquiao

(6) Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.
Multiple reliable sources say first-term mayor Moreno will likely opt for reelection and I seriously think he will because it's the path of least resistance. 

Duterte, Go, and Pacquiao are too Duterte-aligned to accommodate LP. 

Meanwhile, Marcos is LP's archnemesis, so that's a no go.

In short, LP's last hope is its former ally Cayetano. 

No replay, please.

Cayetano ditched Arroyo right before the 2007 elections. Cayetano ditched Aquino for the 2016 elections. If Cayetano manages to prove that he can defy Duterte, if he sees that he can independently exist in the political ecosystem, what will he do in 2022?  [ThinkingPinoy]


[1] Department of Budget and Management. President Duterte fulfills campaign promise, doubles salaries of cops, soldiers. 2018. https://rjnieto.me/36yemBx

[2] New York Times. President Obama’s Farewell Address: Full Video and Text. 10 January 2017. https://rjnieto.me/30AmTAf

[3] Senate of the Philippines. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Undated. https://rjnieto.me/3jB5fDY

[4] GMA News. Arroyo now most unpopular president in 20 years – SWS. 04 April 2006. https://rjnieto.me/33wzOoO

[5] Pulse Asia. September 2020 Nationwide Survey on the Performance and Trust Ratings of the Top Philippine Government Officials and the Performance Ratings of Key Government Institutions. October 2020. https://rjnieto.me/34ovQh3

[6] CNN Philippines. Koko Pimentel elected as Senate President of 17th Congress. 25 July 2016. https://rjnieto.me/36D65wf

[7] CNN Philippines. Duterte appoints Cayetano as DFA chief. 10 May 2017. https://rjnieto.me/34jSze4

[8] Thinking Pinoy. Duterte, Cayetano, Pimentel: Inside Info on the Senate Presidency (Part 1 of 2). 13 June 2016. https://rjnieto.me/3nkahHm

[9] Thinking Pinoy. Duterte, Cayetano, Pimentel: Inside Info on the Senate Presidency (Part 2 of 2). 13 June 2016. https://rjnieto.me/36vnl6J

[10] PNA. Arroyo replaces Alvarez as House Speaker. 23 July 2018. https://rjnieto.me/33ykfwK

[11] Build Build Build. https://rjnieto.me/3nkfUW0

[12] ABS-CBN. Pimentel steps down as Senate president, says Sotto is his successor. 21 May 2018. https://rjnieto.me/2GJ2bXC

[13] PNA. Locsin, Cayetano to meet next week for DFA leadership change. 12 October 2018. https://rjnieto.me/3jz21Rh.

[14] PTV. Cayetano eyes House seat in 2019 polls. 11 October 2018. https://rjnieto.me/34k0KqM

[15] PhilStar. Alan Peter Cayetano proclaimed new Taguig congressman. 15 May 2019. https://rjnieto.me/33urANY

[16] PNA. Cayetanos dominate Taguig polls. 14 May 2019. https://rjnieto.me/33xiosb

[17] CNN Philippines. Comelec junks disqualification bid vs. Cayetano couple. 06 May 2019. https://rjnieto.me/3irDeNO

[18] UNTV. Names that stand out in House speakership race of the 18th Congress. 19 May 2019. https://rjnieto.me/3jxABvj

[19] ABS-CBN News. PDP-Laban to occupy a third of House district seats. 14 June 2019. https://rjnieto.me/3izPaNk

[20] PhilStar. Free-for-all looms in speakership race. 27 June 2019. https://rjnieto.me/2SqeLxQ

[21] CNN Philippines. NP divided between Marcos, Cayetano, Trillanes. 30 May 2015. https://rjnieto.me/3izFMJR

[22] SunStar. PDP-Laban congressmen cross party lines to support Cayetano for Speaker. 25 June 2020. https://rjnieto.me/2GyIYYN

[23] GMA News. Gloria Arroyo allies in NUP back speakership bid of former critic Alan Cayetano. 04 March 2019. https://rjnieto.me/3jzbEQ5

[24] PNA. Romualdez 'has edge' in free-for-all speakership race. 03 June 2019. https://rjnieto.me/36youKB

[25] CNN Philippines. Duterte party endorses Velasco for House Speaker. 26 June 2019. https://rjnieto.me/34s2WfX

[26] GMA News. Sara Duterte says Cayetano warned coalition to end if she endorsed Velasco. 21 May 2019. https://rjnieto.me/2HTTj21

[27] ABS-CBN. Cabinet members pinakiusapang huwag makialam sa speakership | TV Patrol. 04 July 2019. https://rjnieto.me/30CUsSl

[28] PhilStar. Cayetano an ‘ungrateful man’ — Mike A. 08 September 2006. https://rjnieto.me/34pE34J

[29] ABS-CBN. Mar Roxas meets VP hopeful Alan Cayetano. 24 September 2015. https://rjnieto.me/33xXYPN

[30] ABS-CBN. Is it Roxas-Cayetano for 2016?. 04 August 2015. https://rjnieto.me/3jF3iXi

[31] Inquirer. VIDEO: Cayetano questions morality of Poe, Roxas over anti-Duterte ad. 06 May 2016. https://rjnieto.me/3jAY2nd

[32] Inquirer. VIDEO: Cayetano claims Palace, Roxas, Poe conspiracy vs Duterte. https://rjnieto.me/33yEdHD

[33] CNN Philippines. Velasco takes over House speakership starting Oct. 14 - source . 29 September 2020. https://rjnieto.me/3ni4Bxn

[34] Inquirer. Velasco to take over as Speaker on Oct. 14. 29 September 2020. https://rjnieto.me/36ygGse

[35] UNTV. Duterte meets with House speakership rivals. 30 September 2020. https://rjnieto.me/36H8nua

[36] CNN Philippines. Cayetano’s resignation move cheered, jeered. 30 September 2020. https://rjnieto.me/30yEbxu

[37] PhilStar. Velasco camp to declare speakership vacant if Cayetano does not resign on October 14 – lawmaker. 02 October 2020. https://rjnieto.me/2Sr4gKy

[38] ThinkingPinoy. Comelec and DOTC Corruption: Wife's exposé breeds another exposé?. 08 August 2017. https://rjnieto.me/30xrwLd

[39] ThinkingPinoy. #NasaanAngPangulo: Mamasapano, Mar Roxas's ambition, and a PR operator. 17 February 2017. https://rjnieto.me/36BlCg6

[40] ThinkingPinoy. Supreme Court Politics: Sereno will lose, but Carpio will lose more. 05 March 2018. https://rjnieto.me/2StANj5

[41] ThinkingPinoy. #BigasHindiBala: Mar Roxas' own Speechwriter admits Gov't Incompetence. 03 April 2016. https://rjnieto.me/30C1KFR

[42] ThinkingPinoy. Death and the PH Drug Industry: from China to the Streets. 28 August 2016. https://rjnieto.me/3iAaNNN

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